“It is not what lies behind us or ahead of us that matters nearly so much as what lies within us.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Mary Johanna McCurley, Family Lawyer


John and Harry both are involved in a case that is “out of control” with a “Rambo” lawyer on the other side. There has been a string of motions and hearings which have monopolized their practices with the culmination of a Motion for Sanctions against each of them and a grievance filed with the Grievance Committee.

Harry becomes crazed, obsessed with the problem, and begins ignoring his other cases because he is spending so much time with this one case which envelopes his time. His relations with his family suffer and his self-esteem drops to nothing. He is miserable and begins to hate practicing law and always feels bad.

John, on the other hand, sees this case as a new challenge. He networks with colleagues for suggestions and explores new ways to respond to each new “Rambo” ploy.

The situation – “the stressful” event was identical for both John and Harry, but their is no similarity between their responses to it.

Of course, this is an exaggeration of what happens in each of our practices in some fashion on an almost daily basis and, over most of these events, we have no control.

In fact, it is not these events, whatever they may be – a divorce, a death in the family, or a difficult law practice – that causes burn out, stress, depression, the feeling of being overwhelmed, or illness but your perception of the events.

Whether you react like Harry, in overwhelming pain, or like John, supercharged by the challenge, is a matter of choice.

Each period in history has been characterized by some dreadful disease, whether it be the plagues in the Middle Ages or pneumonia in the early 1900s. The disease of the second half of the 20th Century has been “stress.” “[I]t has been called by the medical researchers at Cornell University Medical College ‘the most debilitating medical and social problem in the United States today.’”[1]

This “dis-ease” is the result of how our mind, body and spirit function and interact. In other words, the disease “stress” is the direct result of the way we have consciously and unconsciously chosen to live. This disease results in an incredible variety of symptoms. From yelling at a staff member or another lawyer, to alcoholism, depression, sleeplessness, common cold, stomach problems, irritability, cancer, heart disease – and the list goes on.

The disease of “stress” is more than having an occasional “bad hair day.” It is the recurring imbalance between the body, mind and spirit which eventually leads to the breakdown of some part of the body or emotional being.

We, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, have tried to control the outside forces. Often the futile attempt to “control” the stress has caused stress itself because we cannot ultimately “control” anything or anyone except ourselves. The true source of our stress is the way “we as individuals think, feel and act.”[2]

To achieve the goal of stress-free living and return to balance, we must all take responsibility for our own health rather than depend on a drug, a doctor, or a drink. Our focus must be the whole person – body, mind and spirit.

There is little debate that stress is the major reason for the range of illnesses stated above. “One study showed that people who scored in the upper third of a stress rating scale (rating such events as divorce, death of a spouse, loss of a job, etc.) had 90% more illness than those rating in the lower third of the scale. And they stayed sicker for the full five months of the study…” Studies which delve into the ways we respond to stress report surprising results. For instance, a comparison of harried corporate executives who were all under similar stress, fell into two groups: One group experienced a great deal of illness, the other group didn’t. The difference between groups was unrelated to age, wealth, level on the corporate ladder, or education. The difference was hardiness. Hardiness is your capacity to handle stress without being overwhelmed by it, your resilience in coming back into balance after a stressful event.[3]

The curing of the disease of “stress” is not easy, but it is simple. The first step is understanding what stress is and how it affects us as individuals. Then we can learn how to manage it or rather manage ourselves because what we are really talking about is self-management and not stress-management. As the cartoon strip character, Pogo, once said: “We have found the enemy – it is us.”


A. Diet

The two major areas in which we can learn to develop control in order to reduce stress is diet and exercise. Both diet and exercise are being addressed in other papers, but this article will address them as an overview of methods of stress reduction.

According to Dr. Phil Nuernberger in his book, Freedom From Stress, a poor diet is second only to emotional (or mental) events as a source of stress. Very few, if any, doctors today disagree that healthy eating makes a vital contribution to the balance of the body, mind and spirit.

Healthy eating DOES NOT mean going on a diet. In fact, unless you are terribly obese and a doctor recommends differently, women should probably not eat less than 1,200 calories a day and men 1,500 – 1,800.

You are saying to yourself, “But I need to lose 20 pounds. How am I supposed to do that?” Rule Number One: You may lose 20 pounds by going on a diet, but you will gain it back and, perhaps, more after the diet is over. Rule Number Two: You must change your way of eating for life! Just like changing the way you think, you must change the way you eat. Does this mean you’re stuck eating rabbit food forever? Absolutely not! It simply means low-fat eating, not calorie restrictions. The suggestion of low-fat eating, not calorie restrictions, is for more than physiological reasons, but psychological ones.

Humans, unlike other animals, eat for more reasons that to sustain life physically. The psychological needs we fulfill while eating are different for every individual but is most often comfort. Therefore, rather than deprive yourself of comfort, simply eat more carbohydrates rather than fats. Unlike “fat” foods, carbohydrates do not go into fat stores in the body.

The formula is simple, eat complex carbohydrates like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. Try to limit your fat intake to 20% of your total daily calorie intake. However, most people, to avoid being overwhelmed, can simply identify the high fat foods in their diet which are important to them and eat them in small amounts. Fill up with carbohydrates so that you don’t feel deprived.

By simply shifting to a lower fat diet and beginning an exercise program, the majority of people can lose weight and make great improvements in their health.

Remember the four major food groups we were all taught as children? There are now six food groups according to nutritionists and you are not to eat from each group equally.[4]

Eating less fat is more than a suggestions for cosmetic reasons, but health reasons as well. It is well documented that high cholesterol is one of the major reasons for heart disease and ultimately death. Cholesterol is produced by the liver from the fats we eat. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t eat enough cholesterol to raise your blood cholesterol level. For example, an egg has 213 mg. of cholesterol, while the body has 20,000 mg. However, when we eat saturated fats or gain weight, the liver is stimulated and produces more cholesterol than we need.[5]

Many cancers, such as breast cancer, have been connected to high-fat diets. One out of ten women will develop breast cancer. This should be reason enough to begin a low-fat diet. For both men and women, excess fat in the body is connected to diabetes. A good portion of diabetes can be “cured” or prevented by low-fat diets.

Lastly, a high-fat diet, whether you are aware of it or not, is a stress on your body that will make you just not feel your best. You may think the way you feel every day is normal, but try a low-fat diet for awhile and see if it makes a difference in how you feel.

B. Exercise

As with nutrition, exercise will not be discussed in detail in this article; however, it goes without saying that one important and mandatory ingredient in reduction of stress is exercise.

Moderate exercise not only strengthens the heart (if it is aerobic) but improves the immune function. One study conducted by Dr. David C. Nieman, professor of health sciences at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, found that sedentary women who began walking 45 minutes a day, five days a week, came down with half as many colds as persons who didn’t exercise.

We all know by now the benefits of 20 minutes of aerobic exercise a minimum of three times a week. However, you shouldn’t have your exercise stop there. You will find yourself feeling better mentally and physically if you make exercise a part of your lifestyle change.

The following are some suggestions by Karma Kienstzlow, Vice President for Fitness Development at Canyon Ranch, Tucson, Arizona, for incorporating exercise in small ways into your everyday living.

Make Walking a Part of Your Life.

Try walking at work…

  • during coffee breaks (instead of munching doughnuts).
  • on your lunch hour (to the farthest yogurt stand).
  • up stairs (instead of using the elevator).
  • from your car (which you parked at the far end of the lot).
  • with a client (instead of a happy hour rendezvous).
  • with your boss or assistant (for a private chat).

At home take a walk…

  • instead of watching TV
  • instead of smoking or snacking.
  • to give you energy if you’re feeling run down.
  • before meals, to help control your appetite (no, it won’t make you hungrier!).
  • after meals to boost metabolism and aid sleep.

In your free time, walk…

  • for extended hours on weekends (especially in mountains, parks and countryside).
  • on walking tours when you’re on vacation.
  • with friends and family for heart-to-heart chats.
  • to explore your neighborhood or town.
  • in a charity fund-raising event.
  • as a way to get to know someone (maybe even as an alternative to a typical date).

Lastly, when you are coming up with those excuses of, “I just don’t have time to get to the club,” remember that walking is one of the easiest exercises that can be done anytime, anywhere, and at any age. ln addition to being a good cardiovascular workout, it can be a meditative experience and a time to reflect.

C. Breathing

Breathing is something we all do, but few of us think about or appreciate its importance or how it can play a role in relieving stress.

Learning to breathe properly will “enable you to: calm and settle yourself in times of stress, restore a sense of well being and bring energy and vitality.”[6]

Try the following exercise for a few days and you will see the benefits of it almost immediately:

Inhale deeply, while sitting erect, exhale and let your diaphragm rise and press upward against the rib cage. Try and make the rhythm natural. Do this several times, several times a day. Most importantly, use it in “stressful situations” and you will be amazed at how the situation isn’t nearly as difficult or irritating. (For more information on how our breathing affects stress, see Nuemberger; Freedom from Stress, “The Breath of Life.”)


There is a general agreement (perhaps as high as 70% – 80%) that a high percentage of the primary causes of our diseases are our thoughts, attitudes and beliefs.

The symptoms may be difficult for different people, but it results in negative effects just the same. For example, one person may suppress anger and develop depression and one may suppress anger and develop headaches.

Your body can’t distinguish between your just thinking about something or it actually occurring. For example, after disagreeing with an opposing counsel, you’ll often go over and over in your mind the situation. You shoulders tense up, often your heart rate and blood pressure go up. You’re just as tense as during the encounter. You become stressed! This is not “Rambo’s” fault. You are the only one responsible for how you feel.

It can’t be said better than when Charles Swindoll said, “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than Advanced Family Law Course facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one thing we have and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so, it is with you…We are in charge of our attitudes.”

In other words, your “stress” is your own creation. You can regulate your reactions to the situations you are in. You are not a helpless victim.

Dr. Phil Nuemberger, in his book, Freedom From Stress, points out that the biggest reason for our failure to deal with stress is that we have been looking in the wrong place to try to eliminate it. “We have been operating under the false assumption that stress is a result of adverse environmental factors and we, therefore, expect to find the source of stress in organizational structures, in poor communications between people, in the educational system, or in a thousand and one other places. Consequently, we expect to eliminate stress by manipulating the environment, by manipulating reinforcement contingencies and by altering physical symptoms with drugs.

As a result, thousands of hours, millions of dollars and who knows how much honest effort has been spent in order to understand and highlight those environmental situations which produce stress. Unfortunately, at the end of it all, one has a heart attack at the age of forty and all that information, all that psychotherapy, and all those pills have been to no avail.

If we really want to deal with our stress effectively, “the first thing we must do is recognize that external events provide only the potential stimuli for change in stress levels. They do not actually produce stress, for this is done internally. When we realize this, we can consciously choose whether or not we do something about it.” [7]

In such a short [article] it is not possible to go into all that is necessary to work on this inner dialogue. [There are many additional resources to read more about this subject.]

From a simplistic point of view, it is truly a matter of positive thinking. “Hardiness” to stress, as discussed in the Introduction above, can be learned. We can retrain our minds to develop healthy positive attitudes. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Focus. Focus on and become aware of how your day is affecting you and what messages your body is giving you. Learn when you need to take a break, blow off steam, or just meditate. Focus on constructive self-talk, not destructive. Use words in your thinking like “can do,” “choose to,” “want to,” “so what,” “do,” “challenge,” “change (opportunity).” Nike spent a small fortune researching the best slogan for their product. They came up with “Just Do It.” They want you to have a positive mental attitude when you think about Nike.
  2. Reconstruct Stressful Situations. Think of several ways the “stressful” situation could have been handled differently and re-play it in your mind in one of those better ways. The next time a similar situation comes up, you’ll be better prepared for it.
  3. Learn to Accept the Things You Can’t Change.
  4. Serenity is really the freedom from stress and until we, as lawyers, realize there are some things we cannot change, we will never find serenity or freedom from stress. The only person we can control is ourselves and until we accept that, we will always find ourselves stressed.
  5. See Every Exit as an Entrance. “Any change in our lives marks the end of an era. But it also marks the beginning of a new one.” Rather than hold on to the old, let it go. “Then look forward with hope and excitement for what is gained, what lies ahead.” [8]


Meditation is something that far too many of us don’t practice. We have heard about it all our lives, whether it be by reading about it in the Bible or watching it on [various forms of media]. It is something that most of us think of as “mysterious” or “Eastern.” However, in reality, most of us have experienced meditation without even knowing it. Meditation is simply a slowing down of the mind. We have experienced it when we have sat quietly and watched the ocean waves or a fireplace bum.

Meditation requires a “letting go” from the active, aggressive pace of our day and a slowing down and becoming aware of the moment.

Meditation is not necessarily religious, although it can be, but a method by which one begins to understand himself and his environment and eliminates inner conflicts to obtain a tranquil mind.

Dr. Nuernberger explains it this way: “Our internal reality can be controlled when we become physically very still and very quiet, for when we learn to breathe with the diaphragm, serenely and deeply, we release our physical and nervous tension. After experiencing the benefits of the breathing exercises, we are spontaneously led to understand the various functions of the mind. No one else can do this for us.”

For some, meditation is a time to get in touch with God. For others, it is simply a time to get in touch with their “inner spirit.” Whichever suits your personality and beliefs, if you will try meditation, you will find it to be one more component in the quest to being free from stress.

The practice of mediation has many forms. Some techniques emphasize mental imagery; some use visual forms, such as a candle or religious symbol. Still others require you to be perfectly still while meditating. Meditation can also be accomplished during a walk or jog.

The following is a suggested method of meditation along with some helpful hints regarding mediation from the Continuum, “Spiritual Fitness,” pages 7-8.

“As with most people, you may walk many miles in the course of an ordinary day. Use this as an opportunity to meditate, walking a bit more slowly than usual and focusing your attention on the rhythm of your breathing. Without trying to control your breath, begin each inhalation and exhalation as one of your feet touches the ground. Find a gentle rhythm that flows with each step. As you walk, let each step soothe and center your mind.

“As you begin to feel more relaxed, pay attention to the sensation of walking. Concentrate for a moment on your feet and your lower legs. Notice which muscles contract and which muscles relax as you lift your legs up and down. Which part of your foot touches the ground first? How do your knees feel as they bend and straighten? Notice how the weight shifts from one leg to the other. Is the ground hard or soft that you’re walking on? What is its texture? See if you cross any cracks or step on any stones. Walk on some grass and notice the different sensation from walking on a sidewalk. Just breathe and walk and notice everything. As in all meditation, if your mind wanders, gently bring it back as soon as you notice that it’s wandered off. Be mindful of the process of your walking from the inside of yourself to the outside. When you’re finished you will feel more relaxed and ready to deal with whatever rises. Your mind will be more quiet and clear and ready for new activities.

Here are some helpful hints to maximize your meditation time:

  1. If you find yourself getting sleepy, check your posture or breathe a little more deeply. At first you may alternate between a sleepy state and alert awareness, but as time goes on, your mind will become quite alert.
  2. Sometimes your mind wanders and the future and/or the past invades your thoughts. This is normal. Everyone experiences it at first. Either observe it with awareness or return to breath awareness. By all means don’t fight it, don’t make the mistake of bullying it into submission.

Gentle acceptance of your mind’s contents works best.

During the workday, when you begin to feel tense, when you feel the onset of negative emotions (fear, worry, hostility, anger, self-rejection), pause for a moment and become aware of your breath. Observe how this disturbing emotion has caused you to have a disturbed breathing pattern. Starve this negative emotion by taking long, deep breaths to restore peacefulness and balance to your mind. Do it for a minimum of 2 minutes.

At the same time, notice which parts of your body are becoming tense. Mentally relax your body as well and you will save yourself a lot of energy. End your tension through responses of relaxation, and experience increased energy and well-being.

“It is our heritage to be healthy – physically, mentally and spiritually. Meditation is the tool by which we become aware of the habits which have disrupted, altered and interfered with that heritage. Increased awareness is the process which leads to freedom from these habits.” [9]

However, spiritual fitness involves more than meditation and breathing exercises. It’s a progression of activities, both physical and mental, that encourage and support the exploration of one’s inner self. This interrelationship between body, mind and spirit is vitally important to experiencing complete health.


Our mind, body and behavior are all closely intertwined, constantly affecting one another. We are not made up of body parts that don’t communicate. When we eat, it affects how we feel and think. Our posture reflects our mood and influences it – and on it goes.

Abraham Lincoln said it all when he said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” If we want to be free from stress, then we must learn self-management and learn how our body, mind and spirit work together. We must put into action the old Chinese proverb, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” We must then make some lifestyle changes which reflect that knowledge. If you want to do this, the tools are available. The choices are up to you.

Mary Johanna McCurley is with the firm of McCurley, Orsinger, McCurley, Nelson & Downing in Dallas, Texas. She received her B.A. degree from Centenary College of Louisiana and a J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law. Mrs. McCurley has been a frequent local and national lecturer on family law matters, including stress management.

[1] Freedom From Stress, Phil Nuernberger, page 4
[2] Nuemberger, page 5
[3] Continuum, “Healthy Attitudes,” page 2
[4] In June 2011, the USDA replaced the Food Guide Pyramid with the Food Guide Plate
[5] Continuum, “Preventive Medicine and Health Issues,” page 1
[6] Continuum, “Breathing,” page 1
[7] Id., page 82-83
[8] Dan Baker, Ph.D., Continumn, “Healthy Attitudes,” page 7
[9] Nuemberger, gpg, page 225